Gov. Jared Polis: Colorado shouldn’t block local cooperation with ICE

After weeks of silence, governor elaborates on his anti-"sanctuary state" stance

Immigrant rights advocates marched past the governor's office during a rally at the Capitol in February. (Photo by Evan Semón)

It’s well known that Gov. Jared Polis opposes statewide “sanctuary” policies. He said so on the campaign trail and, since taking office in January, repeatedly has reminded lawmakers who’ve sought — mostly unsuccessfully, so far — to install greater immigrant protections in Colorado.

What’s been unclear, however, is what Polis means, exactly, when he says he’ll veto “sanctuary” bills that come across his desk. “Sanctuary” has no universal definition in the immigration context, and Polis has never explained publicly what the term means to him.

The Colorado Independent has tried for more than two months to interview the governor about his disagreements with immigrant rights groups and some lawmakers. But Polis has declined to elaborate and he’s held just one general news conference at the Capitol since his inauguration.

This week, he broke his silence.

The governor’s office has provided The Independent a “statement of administration policy” — a three-page document that offers the public the first clear articulation of the governor’s stance on the degree to which Colorado officials should be able to cooperate with federal immigrant enforcement.

Among the revelations: Polis would veto HB-1124 — the latest hope for lawmakers trying to pass meaningful immigrant protections this session — unless it’s substantially amended.

According to the policy document, the governor will not support any that bill or legislation that attempts to install any of the following:

  • Prohibitions on state and local governments using public funds or resources to assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in enforcing federal civil immigration laws; such prohibitions, Polis argues, would jeopardize federal public safety funding for Colorado, $2.7 million of which Polis and Weiser recently sued the Trump administration to preserve
  • Prohibitions on ICE officials accessing secure areas of city and county jails
  • Language that states ICE and Colorado officials may only coordinate in the interest of enforcing criminal law
  • Prohibitions on the ability of the state or its political subdivisions entering into contracts that lead to employees assisting ICE in enforcing federal civil immigration laws
  • Prohibitions on Colorado law enforcement officers arresting or detaining people based solely on the basis of a civil immigration detainer; “This politicizes or compromises partnerships between front-line level state and federal investigators, and will be counterproductive to building goodwill and working together to protect public safety,” the statement argues

In other words: Polis doesn’t want to do much in the way of restricting ICE’s ability to operate in Colorado. And if a local or state law enforcement agency wants to help ICE carry out its mission, Polis doesn’t want to get in the way of that, either, because he favors local control.

The governor’s position puts him at odds with Reps. Adrienne Benavidez (D-Commerce City) and Susan Lontine (D-Denver), the sponsors of HB-1124. That bill seeks to clarify what local law enforcement officials in Colorado can and can’t do regarding coordination with ICE. The bill, as of a recent redraft, would effectively ban Colorado officials from using public funds or resources to help enforce federal civil immigration laws.

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Work left to do

“If the governor was presented with the bill as currently drafted,” the administration’s policy document states, “his senior advisors would recommend a veto.”

The document identifies a series of problems Polis has with HB-1124, including the fact that the bill seeks to limit contractual agreements between Colorado law enforcement agencies and ICE. Specifically, the bill seeks to eliminate 287(g) agreements, which are used to deputize local cops as de facto ICE agents and result in detainees being more often referred to federal immigration officers.

“Blanket prohibitions of this kind will have the unintended consequence of preventing human and drug trafficking task forces that are important to public safety,” the document states.

Immigrant rights advocates dispute that notion, and say it’s possible to allow local law enforcement to combat trafficking without turning officers into ICE agents.

“The textbook example of the excesses and abuses of 287(g) is Sheriff Joe Arpaio,” said Hans Meyer, a Colorado immigration attorney and supporter of HB-1124. “They advance nativist, anti-immigrant, openly bigoted enforcement model. I understand the governor’s office wants to promote cooperation, but 287(g) agreements are a relic of the past.”

Meyer added, “It’s perfectly fine to have joint task forces, but the 287(g) agreements are a very counterproductive enforcement model.”

The Colorado State Patrol and El Paso County Sheriff both recently backed out of 287(g) agreements. But Teller County just re-upped its commitment.

Those agreements are notorious deterrents for immigrants who are victims of or witnesses to crime, argue Reps. Lotine and Benavidez. If immigrants feel uneasy contacting police because doing so might get them detained or deported, they and their communities are less safe as a result.

Assuaging those fears was the impetus behind another immigrant rights bill that died this year. It’d been bogged down for weeks by the obstacles presented by Polis’s anti-“sanctuary state” stance, which eventually proved to be an insurmountable challenge for the bill’s backers, who abandoned their effort in mid-March.

Beyond the conflict regarding contractual agreements, the sponsors of HB-1124 must also reckon with Polis’s position that ICE shouldn’t be restricted from entering secure areas of Colorado jails without federal warrants. The bill takes the opposite position.

“We had met with him, and we thought that we had an agreement,” Lontine said. “This is not information I had when we presented the bill in State Affairs.”

“I was surprised to hear that, that he had this definite position,” Lontine said.

Maria De Cambra, spokeswoman for the governor, responded in a statement: “The governor has been consistent and clear that he does not support a statewide sanctuary policy.”

Lontine said the bill “has the votes” to pass out of the House. Speaker KC Becker is in support, a spokesman said. But the bill’s backers are still working to secure Senate sponsorship and the Democratic majority in that chamber is much narrower than in the House. The legislative session also has just three weeks left, so it’s entirely possible that HB-1124 “dies on the vine” this year, as Benavidez put it.

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Common ground

The administration’s policy statement highlights significant areas of agreement between Polis and the people pushing the immigrant rights bills. Points of common ground include:

  • Banning state law enforcement officers from detaining people beyond their scheduled date of lawful release at the request of ICE — a codification of recent court rulings saying that doing so constitutes an illegal re-arrest
  • Banning probation officers from releasing personal identifying information to ICE about a detainee, unless ICE has a warrant to collect the information
  • Requiring law enforcement officers to provide an “advisement of rights” to immigrants ahead of interviews with federal immigration enforcement

There have been at least four meetings in recent weeks between Benavidez and the governor’s policy advisors, some of which Polis has attended.

Those pushing for expanded immigrant protections have been encouraged in those meetings to hear that they can count on the governor’s support on some of their policy goals — but the compromises they’ve had to make to win Polis over have been considerable.

Removed in March from HB-1124 was a provision that would have banned Colorado sheriffs from automatically notifying ICE when an unauthorized immigrant is being released from custody. Advocates admitted that was a huge concession.

And many in the advocacy community remain frustrated that they’re having to work around Polis in the first place. He has a long record as an ally to that community. He founded several schools that serve undocumented children and was a strong supporter of DREAMers when he was in Congress.

But Polis is also guided in part by a libertarian ideology that, in this context, manifests in his across-the-board opposition to limitations on local control. His predecessor, 2020 presidential candidate John Hickenlooper, also bowed to local control on this issue when he was governor — though he questioned the wisdom of such partnerships.

Even though advocates can’t pass all the immigrant protections they see as necessary, there is value, Meyer said, in having an administration policy statement that provides some clarity on how to craft legislation that has a real chance to become law.

“This moves the ball in the right direction. There’s definitely room for improvement, but at the very least it’s a starting point to understand where the governor’s office is coming from,” Meyer said. “We’d like to see more from the advocacy perspective, but it’s good to see the governor agrees in large part with us.”

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  1. Libertarian ideas are failed ideas…Libertarianism is a failed ideology…look around you…there are no libertarian roads, airports or public schools…this is all about selfishness…of an individual…it is bad for small “d” democracy, and bad for community…

  2. “Libertarian” approach here is to allow local officials to do their jobs in ways that make sense to them. Balancing various versions of “safer” for the community does not necessarily have a single answer.

    Seems to me it WOULD make sense to make law clarifying the court interpretations. In addition to the specifics mentioned in this article, the “guidelines” imposed on Arpiao’s department to block racial/ethnic discrimination in enforcement of the laws, especially when there is an ICE connection, would make sense.

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